1573 words (6 minute read)

1. New Horizons

Graham stared into the void of space.

This far above the Earth, without the atmosphere and the man-made carbons to interfere, he almost thought he could see to the edge of the universe itself. He’d never seen so many stars. He was separated from the vacuum of space by only two inches of glass and the clarity was amazing. Up here, space was simply alive – a vivid dance of stars whose light had traveled for billions of years to reach his eyes, only a tiny fraction of which was visible from any point on Earth.

It was as close as Ian Graham ever thought he would get to God.

He shifted his eyes back to the Earth itself. The station was moving fast, traveling at seven thousand miles an hour, orbiting the planet every forty-five minutes. Africa approached now, the Atlantic Ocean fading away under voluminous puffy white clouds. Flashes of light in a swirling mass of angry weather – an Atlantic hurricane – ushered caution. Odd, considering this wasn’t hurricane season.

But then this wasn’t real and he wasn’t really in space.

This was a simulation.

Graham was inside a life-sized mock-up of the new WuSpace Corporation’s Star Voyager Orbital Hotel. This was the official press unveiling, and Graham was one of dozens of reporters from around the world invited to walk through the fabrication situated in a nondescript warehouse on the outskirts of SpacePort, USA in the Mojave Desert. The Star Voyager was a multi-billion dollar investment by a Japanese consortium, designed to capitalize on the burgeoning space tourism market, a market that hadn’t yet materialized in full but which held great promise.

Graham knew he should have been impressed even by the mock-up; it rivaled anything at a theme park, every detail having been carefully crafted for maximum impact. They had simulated the artificial gravity by making the press wear magnetic shoes inside the fabrication. Everything in the fabrication worked. But he’d seen companies like WuSpace before. He’d attended their big presentations and rubbed shoulders with their eager-to-impress executives and press flunkies at conferences, only to see them go bankrupt in a few years. Most of the time, anyway. For too long the real pioneers in private space enterprise were the ones the public really didn’t know about, the ones who shunned the spotlight to focus on results. But things were changing fast.

Space was serious again. Space was about to be big business.

It seemed like every billionaire on the planet had space fever these days – internet gurus, airline industry vets, Sheiks, you name it. Everyone either wanted a ride or to charge for it. The rave, as Graham called it, was fueled by the technological innovations of the last thirty years. As technology shrank in size and exponentially increased in power, it didn’t take two hundred thousand people and one hundred billion dollars to reach space anymore; now it could be done with twenty guys working out of a garage or a small hangar. While the little guy was making progress and the industry had doubled in size every year for the last five years there was still little to show for it, except for early adopters like Virgin Galactic, who were taking people up into LEO, or Low Earth Orbit.

But Graham wasn’t impressed by LEO flights; it wasn’t space, despite the marketing and the hefty price tag. It was the edge of space. It was the difference between hovering in a wind tunnel and skydiving from thirteen thousand feet. And while he was sure a fifteen-minute view of the Earth’s curve was worth a six-figure price tag to some, for Graham the real breakthrough would be getting people into real space not for an hour or a few days, but permanently. That meant a colony on the moon or Mars or even a permanent station at a Lagrangian point between the Earth and the moon. It was the greatest tragedy of modern times that NASA’s mandate had been continually de-scoped after the moon landings to the point that Americans had to rely on Russians and private enterprise for rides to the ISS. It was embarrassing, frankly.

Then there were the Japanese and the Chinese.

In the last two years, these two asian countries had mobilized around space in a way that hadn’t been seen since Kennedy’s speech promising to land a man on the moon in under a decade, a goal that had been reached with only months to spare. The Japanese escalation was seen as a response to the increasing efforts of the Chinese, who were promising to put a man on the moon within the next ten years. And American politicians could seem to care less. Graham had written several editorials about this state of affairs and even challenged the Vice President about it during a press conference, a video which had gone viral and nearly cost him his job, and which had gotten him banned from White House briefings.

But the truth was, the Space Shuttle was gone and NASA’s budget was cut every year. NASA was being sidelined by politicians who wanted to put the money back “into America,” which to Graham meant back into regulation-ignoring corporations who worried about quarterly profit statements instead of long-term vision. The United Nations, in a contentious upheaval, had just reorganized its Office of Outer Space Affairs into a new arm of the U.N. called UNSA – United Nations Space Alliance – and whose mandate was muddy at best. The U.S. still had not signed the UNSA charter. In short, space was again a frontier, a no man’s land with poor regulation, a quagmire of start-ups, bloated government interference, and more failures than successes. Graham thought –

“As you can see,” said the WuSpace press flunky, who was American but carried himself in the quiet, introverted way of a man who had spent too much time among the Japanese, “we’ve spared no expense to make our guests as comfortable as possible. Each suite contains a double-bed and a private bathroom with a spectacular wall-sized window to allow for maximum viewability at all times.”

“Why will your hotel be profitable?” one reporter asked. “Companies like Space Adventures and Bigelow Aerospace are planning to take people around the moon for a hundred million bucks a pop. How can WuSpace compete?”

“We won’t,” the press flunky said. “We don’t believe the future of space tourism is in novelty flights with a limited experiential factor. Moon shots have a nice cache for the uber-rich, but the experience will be not that much better than what the Apollo astronauts dealt with. We think Star Voyager is the future, a luxury space destination where the focus is on the more pleasurable experience of space in a comfortable and safe environment. On Star Voyager, a guest can roam freely between modules while enjoying all the comforts of home and gourmet meals, and even go EVA if they’ve purchased the premium package.”

“You mean you’re going to allow ordinary people to go outside?” Graham said.

“Absolutely,” the press flunky smiled. “After all, if you’re going into space, you might as well have the option to...” He paused for dramatic effect. “… go into space.”

“And how much will that set them back?” someone else asked.

“Our base package is three million dollars per person. Our premium package, which includes two space walks, is five million.”

“What happens when you run out of multi-millionaires? Can you really sustain that cost?”

“We’re already booked for two years through private solicitation,” the press flunky said. “And our waiting list is three years long. By that time, we’ll have two more hotels in orbit and our prices will begin to dramatically decrease. It’s possible that in less than a decade the average working American would spend a week on Star Voyager or a comparable WuSpace installation for the equivalent of a year’s salary.”

“Who’s going to give up a year’s salary for a few days in space?” another reporter asked.

“Men spend, on average, three months of their annual salary for the honor of purchasing an engagement ring,” the press flunky said. “Space is cheap by comparison.”

“You’ve never been married,” Graham said, and the crowd of reporters broke out into laughter.

“If you’ll follow me into the next module, I’d like to show you the recreation area,” the press flunky said.

Graham’s phone vibrated and he paused, letting the others continue on. There was a text message from an alias he didn’t recognize, Tycho8122:

I work for NASA. Have 411 on a story, could change the space industry. Legit. Standing by.

Graham didn’t recognize the sender’s address, but that wasn’t unusual. The Orlando Sentinel posted his email and phone number on the site for the whole world to see, and he frequently got pings like this. Still, this wasn’t from his usual index of contacts inside NASA. He texted back:

Graham: Tell me more.

Tych8122: Need to meet in person.

Graham: Need more info first.

Tycho8122: Do you know bar Rockets Red Glare?

Graham: I know it.

Tycho8122: Midnight.

Graham: Can’t. I’m on the west coast.

Tycho8122: Be there or I go to NYT.

Next Chapter: 2. Rockets Red Glare